That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Republican campaign for the presidency this year. There is very little touting of Bush's record -- but then, that may be due to his having accomplished so little, other than the astonishing heaps of wreckage with which he has littered the political and civic landscape.
When that's what you're left with, all you can really resort to is a strategy that is, as the New York Times described it recently, "relentlessly negative."
A passage in that story is especially instructive:
- "When you run against an opponent who is both a committed liberal and a committed flip-flopper, you have to have all that research about him all of the time," Ms. Devenish said. "Because he's going to go on the trail and say something ludicrous, like he did last week when he said 'I share your conservative values,' and you need to rapidly provide reporters with evidence to the contrary."
The line to which Devenish refers, of course, is from a Kerry appearance in Minnesota in which he remarked:
- "I actually represent the conservative values that they feel," he told a television interviewer in Minnesota, citing his pledge to balance the federal budget and strengthen the country's standing internationally.
The Bush team propmptly hit the stump specifically to attack Kerry's claims in this area, labeling Kerry and Edwards "out of the mainstream" and claiming that they rank the first and fourth most liberal senators. As Bob Somerby and others have already observed, this claim is based on cherry-picked statistics. But it makes a handy sound bite.
But the entire attack is predicated on two entirely different meanings for the word "conservative."
Bush, after all, lays claim to the mantle of conservatism, at least leadership of the movement that has seized control of all layers of the federal government. But how really conservative is it?
Is it conservative to rack up the largest national deficit in history, with only the vaguest outlines of a plan for putting the national budget back in the black?
Is it conservative to ignore warnings of imminent terrorist threats merely because a preoccupation with terrorism is seen as too similar to your predecessor's presidency?
Is it conservative to jettison a half-century's worth of mulitlateral diplomacy and cooperation to pursue a radical vision of a unilateralist America supposedly capable of imposing its will on the rest of the world?
Is it conservative to attack another nation under false pretenses?
Is it conservative to allow torture, rape and killing of civilians under the purview of interrogating prisoners in the nation we now occupy as a result of that vision?
Is it really conservative to adopt the legal position that the president's wartime powers allow him to supersede international law and the Geneva Conventions, and to argue before the Supreme Court that those powers allow the government to imprison American citizens at will without right to trial indefinitely?
And finally, is it really, really conservative to relentlessly and dishonestly attack your opponent, to smear and distort his words and his positions at every turn, to ultimately demonize him and, by extension all of liberalism?
Is that what conservatism is all about now? Hating liberals?
Because, you know, I grew up in a pretty conservative environment. Rural, like the people John Kerry was talking to. And I don't recall those kinds of people having anything to do with this kind of "conservatism."
When George Bush and the GOP attack dogs talk about "conservative values," they strictly mean the values and positions embraced by the conservative movement, which as we have seen over the years has less and less to do with real conservative values and more to do with a totalitarian corporate impulse to monopolize the reins of power and the national discourse.
When John Kerry talks about "conservative values," he means the small-town values of the Heartland in which hard work, integrity, fair play and decency are bound together in a sense of closely knit community.
And the thing is, Bush can trot out the handy sound bites and call John Kerry liberal, liberal, liberal all day long.
But after awhile, even an honest conservative will have to start wondering just what George Bush has to offer, other than an ability to attack his opponent. And he might even start to notice that Bush and the "conservative movement" aren't really all that conservative. At least, not the kind of conservative that I used to know.